Introduction to Sex Therapy – Presentation to West Country Association for Counselling

 Introduction to Sex Therapy – WAC 13-03-2014

g_logo_smMany thanks to all those who attended the West Country Association for Counselling evening at Relate in Exeter on Thursday, 13 March, for my presentation “An Introduction to Sex Therapy”. Special thanks to James Banyard for organising the event and ensuring such a great attendance.

The link above takes you to a PDF of the presentation.

For those who attended I would be happy to answer any further questions you may have regarding the area of sex therapy. If anyone has any client issues that they may need help with then please do not hesitate to get in touch. I currently see clients in Exeter at least twice a month and am very happy to take client referrals or to provide any specific support and help you or your clients may need.

Thanks again to all for attending.

Posted in Psychosexual therapy, Sex Education, sex therapy | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Intimate Terrorism – What Saatchi vs Lawson tells us about “Normal Marital Sadism”

g_logo_smHolding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else”, said the Buddha, “you are the one who gets burned.” It’s a truth that Charles Saatchi and Nigella Lawson might reflect on. Besides the personal suffering endured since their rapid divorce following Saatchi’s apparent assault on his wife in a West End restaurant, the recent court case brought against their employees, the Grillo sisters, saw Lawson forced into the witness box to admit her drug use and Saatchi characterised by his wife as an emotional terrorist. If their anger towards each other was suppressed until Saatchi held his wife “by the neck to make her focus”, it is certainly out in the open now.

It’s been easy for the media to play this as the excesses of the rich and famous. F.Scott Fitzgerald’s view that the very rich “are very different to you and me” has been trotted out to keep this couple’s behaviour at arm’s length from the rest of us. But as any good couples counsellor will tell you, anger and hatred are present even in the most successful relationships. Indeed, it’s the ability of successful couples to acknowledge and manage this part of themselves and use it creatively that actually helps keep them together. “Normal marital sadism”, as the American couples guru David Schnarch terms it, is not the monopoly of the super rich or the underclass caricatures of Shameless. It’s part of all our intimate relationships and it can easily develop into “intimate terrorism”.

We deny our hatred and anger, even on the therapy couch, because it offends our narcissism. Client couples are there to try and repair, so would rather show their best sides rather than own their inner bullies. Therapists too find it hard to manage these negative emotions in themselves and fear the consequences of encouraging clients to express them. But hating your spouse is part of loving them. “We hate them sometimes because we love them,” writes Schnarch. “Our love makes us vulnerable to what they can do to us, what they can do to themselves, and what can befall them (and, indirectly, us).” Successful couples learn to manage these emotions by understanding their aggression and anger, soothing their distress and anxiety, and mastering themselves. These darker parts of our selves can then be turned into something creative and life-giving – most powerfully and usefully in healthy, energetic and positively aggressive sexuality. In short, fucking.

However, neither Lawson nor Saatchi appear to have been able to manage their hatred and aggression and use it positively within their relationship. If we can trust the second-hand accounts in the media, the couple appear to have enjoyed a lot of sexual chemistry when they met ten years ago. What attracted them to one another, besides their mutual fame and his wealth, is unclear, but enough has been said to speculate that Saatchi’s “brilliant but brutal” dark side was one part of him that attracted Lawson. If so, she may have been disappointed. “I am not that fascinating,” he was quoted as saying recently. “I don’t have whips and chains in a dungeon.” That may well be the case, but it’s much healthier to learn how to enjoy consensual, safe, aggressive sex in the bedroom than it is to grab your wife by the throat in public.

Anger and hate might seem a long way from the public image that Lawson herself presents. Every goddess in the ancient Greek pantheon was as capable as their male counterparts of violence, anger and destruction. Lawson’s Domestic Goddess persona is a mixture of wholesome, middle-class saintliness in the kitchen with a strong hint of sensual naughtiness in the bedroom. Not surprisingly, in the fallout from their divorce, she has positioned herself as the victim of Saatchi’s aggression. Yet Saatchi has described his marriage to Lawson as like the experience of a carpet python who “made a fatal error when he decided to make a tarantula his lunch”. Nigella’s bite may be subtle, but no less dangerous.

Which brings us back to the phrase she used to describe their marriage: “intimate terrorism”. It’s worth remembering that Saatchi is originally an Iraqi Jew, born in Baghdad, so any description of him as a terrorist is certainly meant to wound. The adjective intimate is also significant. Intimacy is a euphemism for sexuality in our culture, so to use this phrase raises the stakes by implying a level of sexual violence and abuse. The connection between anger, hate and sex seems unmistakeable, and in my mind indicates that this couple have never been able to manage this aspect of themselves and express it creatively in their relationship.

Given the so-called “war on terror”, the phrase certainly attempts to put Lawson on the side of the angels while demonising Saatchi as some sort of emotional Bin Laden. Yet the analogy doesn’t really stand up. Anyone, powerful or weak, can commit an act of terror, yet terrorism per se is the weapon of the weak, forced underground in the face of overwhelming force. If there was a powerful emotional war machine in the power struggle of this marriage, it is likely to have been Saatchi. The photos in Scott’s restaurant may show a woman in terror while a man appears to throttle her. Saatchi may be a bully, but if so, the most likely candidate for emotional guerrilla fighter in this marriage is Lawson herself.

It might be seen as unethical for a couples therapist to analyse two people’s relationship on the basis of second-hand gossip and the odd personal confession from the newspapers. But the point is not whether I am right about the motivation but whether I am right about behaviour that is public and therefore open to comment. The fight between Saatchi and Lawson is a demonstration of the kind of normal, intimate sadism that we all practice at different levels. And the important thing about this behaviour is that it takes two to collude to commit it. Those involved may seek to exculpate themselves by claiming they were bullied or deceived. Yet both partners share equal responsibility. Unless physical coercion is involved, and Scotts restaurant aside there have been no allegations of physical abuse, the “victim” who chooses to stay in the relationship may be playing a game in which they have as much power as the aggressor. Single victims are rare in most marriages. What I see in my consulting rooms are complex interplays where both partners commit their particular form of terror on the other in their unique way.

I doubt whether Saatchi and Lawson tried couple counselling. But at the point of their divorce, I would have advised that if anger and hatred are among the issues that wrecked this marriage, they need to be acknowledged and processed before either can move on. The fact that the couple are still fighting one another through proxy court cases and newspaper articles is a sign that they feel very strongly about one another but are presently only able to express that mutual passion in ways that are destructive. When Nigella takes something hot from the oven in her inevitable comeback special, she would do well to remember that carrying hot coals requires thick oven gloves. 

For more information on “normal marital sadism” see Constructing the Sexual Crucible, David M. Schnarch, 1991. pp. 413 -420.

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Happy Divorce Day!

g_logo_smMonday, January 6, will see divorce lawyers, family mediators and couples counsellors all over the country checking their email inboxes and voice messages with more anticipation than usual. As the first day of the first full working week of 2014, tomorrow is known in the relationship crisis business as Divorce Day.

For those who make their livings out of relationship difficulties, there are two busy seasons each year: the first weeks of September after the end of the school holidays, and the first working week after the Christmas and New Year break. If your relationship is in suppressed crisis, there’s nothing like a few weeks in the company of your partner or your partner and the kids to push one or both of you to make a big decision.

It’s pretty obvious why Christmas and New Year is the season most likely to push couples into calling time or calling in outside help. Even for relationships that are good enough not to make us want to leave, Christmas can be a costly, tiring, and rather joyless slog. By the time New Year rolls round, tempers are likely to have frayed more than once, children are under-stimulated and bored, and many of us start to worry about how much we have spent on it all. No wonder the New Year leads some to hope that it might all better next time round with someone else or even just on their own.

Solicitors reportedly see a 30% spike in divorce related enquiries in the first working days after New Year. According to Jane Robey, Chief Executive of National Family Mediation, the UK’s largest provider of couples mediation, 2014 could be busier than ever: “The festive season is always a difficult time for couples on the edge. Many people get through the tensions for the sake of the children, but then want to make a new start. This year, add the pressures of debt, worries about holding onto jobs, and other recession-related problems and you’ve got an explosive mixture.”

Many of those who decide enough is enough this January may well have been considering their decision for a while and have explored strategies for improving or saving their relationship already. Others are equally likely not to have thought or talked things through with their partner as thoroughly as they could. So my advice is before you tell your partner it is over or call your solicitor to ask for their divorce specialist, talk to your partner and tell him or her why this Christmas has not been all that you had hoped. If that fails to get dialogue going, then think about seeing a couples therapist, ideally together, to talk about what happened over the holidays and what you can learn from it about the challenges in your relationship. One of the truths universally forgotten by couples in crisis is that counselling and therapy costs a fraction of the average legal bill for a separation or divorce.

But what about those who didn’t have such a great Christmas with their partners, but found it just about bearable? Well, to paraphrase Tolstoy, all happy family Christmases resemble one another, but each unhappy family Christmas is unhappy in its own unique way. The patterns of behaviour between couples that we put up with the rest of the year become uniquely intolerable under the pressure of a family Christmas. But at least we begin January knowing exactly the things that we hate and loathe about our partners and they about us. That makes the first weeks of January a very good time to get professional help and do something about them, before the emotional discomfort of Christmas fades with the last of mince pies and the whole cycle of burying our emotions and building up another year of resentment begins again.

So if Christmas this year has left you feeling that all is not right with your relationship, then contact a professional couples or relationship therapist and make sorting things out a priority for the New Year. If you do, there’s a good chance that you won’t be on the phone to your lawyer or in a taxi with a suitcase next January. 

Posted in Couples Counselling, Divorce Day, Family Mediation, Relationship Counselling | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Play Bad Sex Media Bingo

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ImageCringingly bad documentaries on sex now seem to be a standard of mid-week TV schedules on Channel 4. After last week’s Porn on the Brain, my expectations of C4’s next offering in the genre to be broadcast on Monday, Sex Box, are not high. However, for all those of us fed up with bad science, sweeping generalisations and being left with the sense that are own particular sexual preferences and practices are not shared by whoever commissions these programmes, there is an alternative to shouting at the television and switching over to the safety of The Great British Bake Off.

Now you can enhance you viewing experience with Bad Sex Media Bingo (http://badsexmediabingo.com/). Every time you spot a “celebrity sex expert”, “token attractive gay couple” or a hint of moral panic over “teen sexualisation”, just note it down or play along at #badsexbingo. How many of the bingo numbers can you spot during each new programme or article about sex? Will you be able to call House! first? You might even persuade your teenage children to stop streaming hardcore porn in their bedrooms and join you for an educational experience.

Put together by the Sense about Sex network (www.SenseAboutSex.com), a group of therapists, educators and journalists who are tired of the clichés and concerned that TV sex programmes perpetuate unhelpful, limited and often inaccurate stereotypes, Bad Sex Media Bingo offers plenty of fun for all the family who are up after the watershed.

According to Sense about Sex, Channel 4’s Porn On The Brain ticked 13 out of 24 of the squares on Bad Sex Media Bingo, notably: porn rewires your brain; sex science = brain scans and labcoats; all porn is bad (or good); sex addiction is real; complex topic oversimplified; Kink! Is weird, strange or dangerous (lots of referring to anything other than images of naked women as not NORMAL); sex ed not good enough: complaining not doing; Zomg! Teens! Internet! Sexualization! STI rates!.

Posted in Bad Sex Media Bingo, Pornography, Sex Education, Sexualisation, TV Sex Programmes | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Porn on the Brain – Ex-Lad Mag Editor Launders His Soul on TV

ImageGod loves a sinner that repents more than ninety-nine righteous men. But when it comes to preaching on TV about the effects of porn, even the Almighty might wince at the hypocrisy demonstrated on Channel 4 this week by Martin Daubney, former editor of UK lads mag Loaded. Daubney fronted C4’s shockumentary “Porn on the Brain”, billed as a ground-breaking exposé of how teenagers’ pornography habits have changed and the effect porn is having on their brains. Since he praised model Abi Titmus for doing “subservient poses with her arse in the air that other girls won’t do” and described men’s sexual health features as “boring”1, Daubney has apparently experienced a Damascene conversion. Concerned for the future of his young son, he now writes for the Daily Mail and takes an anti-porn stand on Twitter. So what better figure to lead a further media-driven instalment of the moral panic over the impact of pornography on the nation’s youth.

The substance of the programme was predictable to anyone familiar with the current corruption of innocence debate: interviews with school kids whose familiarity with sexual activity Daubney’s generation never knew even in their wildest wet dreams; MRI scans of brains supposedly addled by exposure to porn; and the compulsory trip to the Netherlands to see how sex education works so much better over there. So much, so predictable. As usual, the really important questions got squeezed out by the hyperbole of talking head TV. How do we educate young people to evaluate sexual activity online, to exercise critical judgement about what is real or fantasy, liberating or exploitative, and how do we enable them to make informed choices about what sort of sexual activities they want to try? Daubney’s only answer was to encourage families to have that traditional uncomfortable talk about sex. But given that the programme was likely to leave parents distressed at the supposed deluge of  “Asian Butt Fisting” videos streaming onto their kids’ mobiles during break time, open and honest discussion of sex hardly seems more likely.

But while the programme informed the pornification debate not a jot, it did tell us a lot about Daubney and his view of his role in the proliferation of pornography in the UK. Daubney now looks back on his past with blue tinted spectacles. The 2000s were “an age of innocence”. Zoo, Nuts and Loaded may have vied with each other on nipple counts, but “it never occurred to us that was porn,” protests Daubney. Yet these magazines were as influential in making it acceptable to objectify women as Playboy and Mayfair in the 1960s and 70s, but this time the new market for glamour and lifestyle porn was young adult males. Apparently Daubney had no idea then of what he learned in the programme, that the teenage brain might be particularly susceptible to sexual stimulation. Perhaps he was just naive and ran Loaded as some sort of immature joke, whose tit fests had a “sense of humour” quite unlike the current “buffet of online depravity”. Yet this is the man who said of the ubiquitous Ms Titmus: “The great thing about Abi is she’ll say exactly what men want to hear – that she likes being bent over from behind, shagged like an animal1.” Innocence indeed.

Daubney likes to play the idiot. When the programme moves to the mandatory experiment to show how porn might impact the pleasure centres of the brain, he needs to find “someone really smart” to carry it out. C4’s study, undertaken with Cambridge University, has a control group of 20 healthy guys and 20 men “so controlled by porn they were willing to take part in this study”, making this not so much TV science as vintage Brass Eye. Daubney too is ready to face the MRI porn test, and having spent much of his career micro-analysing women’s bodies, he admits to “absolutely crapping myself” that his brain would give him away as a “porn fiend”. Fortunately, although excited by what he sees, his response was barely visible, whereas the brains of the compulsive porn users “lit up like Christmas trees”. Science journalist of the year he is not.

Rather than being a study of porn’s potential impact on youth, this programme was more a ham-fisted attempt by Daubney to absolve himself of any responsibility for what he sees now as a harmful social trend, the further integration of porn into mainstream youth culture. Unfortunately he doesn’t even have the half defence of the Playboy generation that they were seeking to liberate sexuality through porn. New Laddism was not in fact divorced from the growth of the world wide web and the increasing ubiquity of sexual imagery. It was part and parcel of the process, naked commercialism personified in Abi-on-all-fours, ads for phone sex chat lines and as many images as you could download at increasing broadband speed.

Yet rather than face up to this negative social legacy and offer a sincere mea culpa, Daubney prefers to see that era as just good clean fun. In the end he is just another haggard old masturbator turned moral crusader, a man who plastered tits across teenage boys’ bedrooms but prefers to use “willy” rather than “penis” and is shocked at the idea of teaching the names of genitalia to kids. His immature sexuality fitted him perfectly to sell sexual imagery in bulk to adolescent males alongside aspirational advertising for designer clothing and men’s cosmetics. His hypocrisy continues to be typical of a society that considers censoring the web on one hand while viewing lap dancing clubs as tools to empower women and regenerate high streets on the other. In the end, this was all just too much about Martin, as when he confronts his dad, a retired miner, about the box of porn mags that Daubney once found under a bed. As Daubney Senior reminds his son, “That was when you realised what you were going to grow into…a wanker.”

  1. Janice Turner, “Dirty Young Men”, The Guardian, 22 October, 2005. http://www.theguardian.com/theguardian/2005/oct/22/weekend7.weekend3
Posted in Male Sexuality, Pornography, Sex Education, Sexualisation | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Big Pharma Pushes Out Therapy for Erectile Dysfunction

g_logo_smDrug treatments for erectile dysfunction (ED) are effective. Millions of men, particularly older men, have been helped to better, more reliable erections. Until the chance discovery less than two decades ago that PDE type-5 inhibitors had a gratifying side impact on men taking the test drugs for heart disease, a man with erectile problems that did not respond to group or psychosexual therapy faced a choice between giving up penetrative sex or resorting to inconvenient, unpleasant and profoundly unsexy vacuum pumps and injections. Sildenafil (aka Viagra) and other PDE type-5 drugs were a positive development for many men. They have also been a welcome boost to the profits of drug companies.

However, erectile dysfunction is a complex and still under-researched condition. Its causes are multifaceted, rarely straightforward and likely to vary widely between men. Heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes may all make erectile dysfunction more likely. In older men they may be a primary cause. But relationship difficulties, intimacy problems, sexual history, stress, depression, and anxiety may be equally important. In younger men these latter factors are likely to be more significant. However, Big Pharma now dominates this field of sex therapy, and consequently the majority of ED research studies now deal with biological causes and treatments rather than psychosocial factors. Physician training, clinical guidelines and prescription information are all steadily being skewed towards approaching ED as a medical condition to be treated with drugs. In the UK, for example, where cultural factors make a pleasurable sex life a lower health priority, particularly when public health budgets are under pressure, treating ED with a quick and cheap drug script has become the default response for busy doctors, whose only information about erection problems is courtesy of drug companies. Few are likely to recommend the group or individual therapy that has been proven to be equally effective either on its own or in combination with medication. The chances of such talking cures being available on the NHS are even lower.

However, it is on the internet that the marketing muscle of Big Pharma has the greatest potential impact. At present, direct-to-consumer marketing by pharmaceutical companies is only permitted in the USA. But with the internet now the primary source of information about sexual health problems, drug companies can influence consumers anywhere and advertise their products directly and indirectly. A number of studies have now demonstrated that whatever the mental health issue, be it depression, anxiety or OCD, if a website is funded by a drug company, it is more likely to explain a problem in terms of its biological rather than psychosocial causes and recommend a drug treatment1.

A recent study from New Zealand shows that the same trend is underway on websites dealing with ED2. The research reviewed some 70 websites that dealt with erectile problems, mostly from the USA and the UK. Nearly half were either drug company sites, sites that explicitly acknowledged pharmaceutical funding, or sites that took drug company advertising. Yet even though half the sites were nominally independent of pharma money, the bias towards biological causes and treatments in site information was clear. For every ED website that emphasized psychosocial causes, 18 emphasized biological causes. For every website that emphasized psychosocial treatments, 27 emphasized biological treatments. Overall, 77% of the websites put the greatest weight on pharmaceutical treatment, a figure that predictably rose to 90% for pharma-funded sites.

So a man looking for information on the web about why he might be experiencing ED and what he might do about it is most likely to be told that his problem is physical and that drug treatment will sort it out. The same will apply to a professional physician looking for information on behalf of patients. Both lay person and professional are likely to be misled about what is available in terms of effective treatments. Many men may only receive a treatment that, while it might be effective in terms of erections, is unlikely to address the potentially multiple causes of their difficulties, be they relationship problems, depression or anxiety. Judging by the clients who eventually come to me for treatment, PDE type-5 drugs restore erections only temporarily. The underlying psychological and social causes ensure it returns.

The bias towards medication amounts to a direct or indirect theft of choice from the individual man. If this were not bad enough, it also potentially raises the level of stigma surrounding the experience of ED. Persuading someone that their mental health issue is a biologically based illness has been shown to actually increase rather than decrease stigma and prejudice3. The condition becomes a permanent characteristic of the individual rather than a reaction to life events or circumstances. In contrast, belief in psychosocial causes is associated with more positive attitudes and reduced prejudice. The same is likely to be true of ED, although the chances of anyone funding research to find that out is unlikely given the above. Moreover, if biology is all in terms of ED, the penis becomes just a malfunctioning machine. Many men’s attitudes to sex and sexuality are far too mechanical already, so treating the penis as a bit of faulty kit, devoid of the context of each man’s unique life history, anxieties and relationships, fundamentally devalues male sexual functioning and response.

So far, so negative. However, although the internet appears to be the area where ED information and advice is most biased towards the interests of the pharmaceutical industry, it also offers men a forum to take back the initiative, start sharing experiences of ED and work with one another to recommend possible treatments. The top-down model of information exchange that has dominated advertising and communications for a generation is starting to break down. New social media may yet be dominated by the existing commercial power structures, but there are many fields of social interaction where individuals are using the web’s power to speak directly to one another and make up their own minds. All it might take is one man experiencing ED to start a blog or a message board that offers honest, unbiased answers to set the ball rolling. Or perhaps a few sex therapists might have the courage to change their working model, stop relying on a diminishing stream of physician referrals, and take their experience of this complex problem online and offer it to men who need information and help. Should these changes begin to happen, you can be sure that Big Pharma will come knocking on the door with the usual blandishments and incentives of advertising and sponsorship. The behaviour of much of the medical profession shows how hard that might be to resist.

  1. Mitchell, J., & Read, J. (2012). Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, drug companies and the Internet, Clinical Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 17, 121-139.
  2. Mati, E., & Read, J. (2013). Erectile Dysfunction and the Internet: Drug Company Manipulation of Public and Professional Opinion, Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, 39:6, 541-559.
  3. Angermeyer, M., Holzinger, A., Carta, M., & Schomerus, G. (2011). Biogenetic explanations and public acceptance of mental illness, British Journal of Psychiatry, 199, 367-372.
Posted in ED, Erectile Dysfunction, Male Sexuality, PDE Type-5 inhibitors, Psychosexual therapy, sex therapy, sildenafil, viagra | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Academies Must Try Harder To Reassure Gay Parents

ImageThe recent news that a number of academy schools in the UK had banned the “promotion of homosexuality” in language redolent of the infamous Section 28 policy of the 1980s comes as no surprise to lesbian, gay and bisexual parents of school age children. A new report, Gay in Britain, published by Stonewall, the LGB rights charity, reveals that many LGB people expect to be discriminated against in many areas of public life, but particularly and worryingly in education1. Despite the fact that schools have a clear duty to tackle homophobic bullying, according to Stonewall three out of five (61%) LGB parents expect their child would experience bullying in primary school if it were known that their parents are gay. More than four out of five (83%) expect the same for a child in secondary school. Given that the Government estimates there are now 19,000 UK children in same-sex parent families, ensuring that homophobic bullying is stopped and parents reassured is becoming another priority in the management of schools.

However, it seems that academy schools could be encouraging anti-gay discrimination and potentially bullying through their own sex education policies. Earlier this month it was reported that Colston’s Girls’ School, a secondary academy in Bristol, Swindon Academy and Castle View Enterprise Academy in Sunderland had reintroduced anti-gay language banning the “promotion of homosexuality” into their sex and relationships education (SRE) policy. The schools’ policies stated that while “objective discussion of homosexuality” might take place in the classroom, the governing bodies would not permit “the promotion of homosexuality”. The terminology brings back unpleasant memories of Section 28, an amendment to the 1988 Local Government Act introduced under Margaret Thatcher. Section 28 stated that local authorities “shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality” or “promote the teaching of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship”. The amendment was repealed in 2000 in Scotland as one of the first pieces of legislation enacted by the new Scottish Parliament. The rest of the UK took longer and repealed it in 2003.

Yet even before Section 28 made a comeback in the news, the perceptions collected by Stonewall indicate that gay parents are very uncertain about the attitudes of academy schools to homosexuality. There are no national curriculum guidelines on sex education in the UK and policies and details of lessons are left to individual schools to draw up. Schools are still required to comply with the Equality Act which forbids any discrimination, but confidence among gay parents that schools outside of local authority control would stick to the rules is low. Whereas one in twenty (5%) expected some discrimination in maintained schools run by local government, when asked about the treatment they would receive if they enrolled their child in a school outside of local authority control one in eight (13%) lesbian, gay and bisexual people said they expect they will be treated worse than heterosexuals when enrolling their child in primary or secondary free schools and academies. Not unexpectedly, a significantly higher number of gay people, three in five (61%) expected poorer treatment if they enrol their child in a faith primary or secondary school. The reports of discriminatory wording from Bristol, Swindon and Sunderland will have done nothing to improve these figures.

Since the reports of Section 28 style statements in academy sex education policy surfaced, Ministers, opposition MPs and gay rights activists have united to express anger and alarm. Campaigners with the British Humanist Association have now identified more than 40 schools across the country that stress in their sex education guidelines that governors will not allow teachers to “promote” homosexuality, or are ambiguous on the issue.

According to The Independent newspaper, the schools named in the Section 28 row have since taken action in response to criticism2. Following intervention from the Liberal Democrat MP for Bristol West, Stephen Williams, Colston’s Girls’ School in Bristol stated that the policy was a draft that was withdrawn in late June and is now under review. Castle View Enterprise Academy in Sunderland executed a similar U-turn and Swindon Academy is now discussing with Stonewall how it can do better. However, The Independent also reported that academies in Manchester, Stockport, Coventry, Solihull and London appear to be sticking to their wording.

The effect of allowing such policies to remain in place is that it makes homophobic bullying more likely. Following his intervention with Colston’s Girls’ School, Stephen Williams MP was reported as saying: “We need to get a grip on this to ensure schools aren’t breaching the guidelines that are in place to combat homophobic bullying.” However, given the complex structure of contemporary UK education with its mixture of local authority schools, free schools, academies and faith schools, all with different aims and agendas, achieving consistency on any aspect of sex education policy is a challenge. Moreover, if the Coalition Government persists in releasing more schools from local authority control, a trend begun under Labour, it is likely that the task of ensuring guidelines are met is going to get harder.

The Department for Education will need to keep up the pressure on boards of governors, and that is going to be harder if those very people are unrepresentative of different sexual orientations. Unfortunately, as the Stonewall report makes clear, a significant majority of gay people still fear discrimination if they wanted to become more involved with their child’s school on a formal level. Seven in ten (70%) expect to face barriers because of their sexual orientation if they applied to become a school governor, increasing to almost eight in ten (78%) black and minority ethnic gay people.

At least this time round academies’ sex education policies have been put under scrutiny for potential discrimination and it must be hoped that the bad publicity makes them more conscious of their responsibilities in the future. However, if gay parents still feel excluded from school government and the numbers of schools released from local authority control and supervision continues to grow, the danger of sex education shifting in a homophobic direction is increased. Academies need to do better. If they do not, future governments may find themselves under pressure to stop coaxing schools to meet guidelines and use the Equality Act to prosecute schools that break the rules.

1.   www.stonewall.org.uk/gayinbritain: On behalf of Stonewall, YouGov surveyed 2,092 lesbian, gay and bisexual adults from across England, Scotland and Wales in October 2012.The figures have been weighted and are representative of adults across Britain.

2.  www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/the-return-of-section-28-schools-and-academies-practising-homophobic-policy-that-was-outlawed-under-tony-blair-8775249.html

Posted in Education Policy, Gay and Bisexual, Gay and Bisexual Parents, Sex Education | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Female Ejaculation – Fact or Porn Fantasy?

ImageDo some women ejaculate like men? In the twentieth century the experience of female ejaculation was widely believed to be an invention of Victorian pornographers, particularly William Lazenby’s notorious The Pearl, published in 1879 and banned the next year.  Masters and Johnson, the pioneering 1960s sex therapists, described it as an “erroneous but widespread concept”1 and Germaine Greer declared it “utterly fanciful” in The Female Eunuch2. Despite the fact that Aristotle wrote about it and De Graaf, a seventeenth century Dutch physician,  described the phenomenon in detail, modern medical and sex researchers have largely ignored it or inaccurately identified the fluid produced as the result of urinary incontinence. So while the clitoris and the G-spot have been the subject of study, debate and discussion, female ejaculation has until recently been considered on a par with wetting the bed!  Not surprisingly this has led some women to be ashamed of their experience and attempt to hide it from partners. In a few anecdotal cases, male disgust at the emission of fluid has even been grounds for divorce3.  However, a new online survey among women in Germany, Austria and the USA that suggests that not only do many women experience ejaculation but that they also see it as a positive element in their sexual behaviour4.

The survey, conducted by a Vienna urology clinic in the form of an online questionnaire, found that of the 320 women who responded 30% experienced ejaculation “a few times a week” and some 20% about “once a month”. The women estimated the amount of fluid they produced ranged from 0.3 mL (12%) to 60 mL (29%) and up to over 150 mL (20%). Given that the average male produces only about a teaspoon of ejaculate (about 6 mL), these volumes are hard to ignore. What’s more, over 80% of the respondents described their ejaculate as a clear fluid without any suggestion of the colour associated with urine, a finding that is backed up by other research.

So where might this fluid come from? The most likely source is the Skene’s glands located on the forward wall of the vagina, around the lower end of the urethra. These glands are surrounded by tissue, including part of the clitoris. They lubricate the vagina during arousal and may have some role in G-spot orgasms. Given that the male and female reproductive organs develop from the same basic genital system at about 6 weeks after conception, Skene’s glands may be the most likely female organ corresponding to the male prostate, the source of men’s ejaculate. However, the glands vary considerably between women, which may explain why not all women appear to experience ejaculation. The glands discharge into both the vagina and the urethra, hence the longstanding confusion between female ejaculate and urine. In the Vienna survey, 32% of women identified the vagina as the source of their ejaculation and 23% the urethra. About 15% were sufficiently aware of their anatomy to identify the front wall of the vagina as the ejaculation source.

Given that the Vienna findings are based on women’s subjective experience, they don’t offer a definitive answer to the mysterious source of this fluid. It seems clear that both the urethra and the vagina are common sources, but whether the fluid is some sort of female ejaculate that corresponds to the male variety or an expulsion of vaginal lubricant is still up for debate. The idea that female ejaculate is mostly urine, while still commonly believed, seems less and less likely. As men should be well aware, it’s impossible to urinate while you are ejaculating and there’s no reason to suggest women are different. Some older women do experience urinary incontinence during intercourse, a problem that is often under-diagnosed, but none of the Vienna respondents registered this problem and there is no evidence to support a sudden leakage of urine of the scale reported by women who ejaculate.

The reason that female ejaculation was ignored for so long is that it seemed to have no reproductive purpose. As long as men (and some women) believed that female bodies were designed to make babies rather than experience the pleasure of orgasm, there was not going to be any room for female ejaculation. Now that women have embraced their orgasmic potential, the fact that for some the experience includes ejaculation is finally getting attention. However, as the continuing debate over the G-spot demonstrates, female sexuality still gets less attention than it deserves from researchers.  For the women who completed the Vienna survey, however, their experience of ejaculation was pleasurable whatever its source. Far from being embarrassed by their ejaculation, 78% felt it enriched their sex lives and 90% described their partner’s attitude as “positive”. Given that three quarters of the women described themselves as heterosexual, it seems that male partners were finding the experience of their partner’s ejaculation almost as satisfying as their own. Perhaps those Victorian kinksters were onto something.

  1. William Masters and Virginia Johnson, Human Sexual Response, p.135.
  2. Germaine Greer, The Female Eunuch, p.240.
  3. Alice Ladas, Beverly Whipple and John Perry, The G Spot, p. 71.
  4. Florian Wimpissinger, Christopher Springer and Walter Stackl , “International online survey: female ejaculation has a positive impact on women’s and their partners’ sex lives”, BJU International, 2013.
Posted in Female Sexuality | Tagged , , , , | 6 Comments

Sex Education and Faith Communities in the UK: Challenges and Opportunities

g_logo_smPanel Discussion

Thursday – 18 July 2013 – 5pm – 7pm

Donald McIntyre Building, University of Cambridge, Faculty of Education

30 May 2013 – Should sex education in schools be as open as possible and or is it best left to families and faith groups? Is there a workable and practicable middle ground? What do these questions mean for education policy and where do the politicians and educators stand?

Sex education has always been a challenging, controversial and politically charged issue for British schools. The increasing cultural and religious diversity of UK society has brought greater complexity to the sex education debate; introducing multiple, and sometimes conflicting interpretations of what constitutes right and wrong, appropriate and inappropriate.

BASE (The British Association of Sexual Educators) will host a panel discussion on 18 July 2013 at Cambridge University, Faculty of Education, to discuss these and other questions around the interaction between sex education and faith groups. Organised with the Education, Equality and Development group in the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge, a panel of leading experts and activists in the field, including representatives from faith groups and sex education charities, will discuss the challenges and opportunities of balancing sex education requirements in schools with the beliefs of faith communities.

The last time this subject was tackled at this level in Cambridge was in 1990 when Homerton College hosted a ground-breaking seminar, “Sex education in the school curriculum: The religious perspective”. Sponsored by Cambridge University’s Faculty of Education and the Islamic Academy, this event demonstrated that different faith groups shared a common concern about sex education but that religious perspectives on the subject were lacking. Since then, new national guidelines emphasising the importance of consulting parents and the wider community have tried to address this situation and help schools plan sex education policy and practice. However, developing religiously tailored and culturally acceptable sex education programmes has proved to be easier said than done. Has 23 years of discussion and policy making opened up the dialogue and encouraged consensus or have opposing positions got more entrenched?

“Britain’s increasing cultural and religious diversity has significantly complicated the national debate around sex education,” said Sue Newsome, psychosexual therapist and Chair of BASE. “But, it would be too simplistic to characterise this as a black and white choice between “sex in the syllabus” and “thou shalt not”. BASE represents sex educators on both sides of the debate, and we hope this seminar will not only stimulate honest debate, but also contribute to building consensus on how to take sex education policy and practice forward. We also intend to make this discussion a focus of BASE’s annual conference in November.”

Speakers at the event will be: Simon Blake OBE, Chief Executive of Brook; Colleen McLaughlin, Professor of Education and Head of the Education Department at the University of Sussex; Yusuf Patel, founder of SREIslamic; Michael Reiss, Anglican priest and Professor of Science Education at the Institute of Education, University of London; Audrey Simpson OBE, acting CEO of the Family Planning Association; and Alireza Tabatabaie, medical doctor and specialist in clinical sexology.

For more information on the event and directions go to:

BASE

The British Association of Sex Educators (BASE) was established in 2009 to support sex education professionals in their specific professional fields to deliver sex education that is wider than basic information on the prevention of STIs and pregnancy. BASE does this by sharing sexual education information and resources; by promoting an environment of openness and frankness about sex from different perspectives; and encouraging and participating in national debate on sexual issues and policy. BASE holds regular conferences, workshops, seminars and training on sexual health issues covering a broad spectrum of sexual topics.

BASE’s annual conference will be held on 8 November 2013 at Yarnfield Park Training & Conference Centre, Stone, Staffordshire. For more information go to www.baseuk.org.

Contacts:

For information on the panel discussion contact:

Dr. Alireza Tabatabaie

Faculty of Education

Education, Equality and Development group

at548@cam.ac.uk

For information on BASE and on this and other events contact:

Graham Prince

BASE Executive Committee

sextherapybristol@gmail.com

07921-866286

Posted in BASE, Sex Education | Tagged , | Leave a comment

The Wrong Trousers: Has a Bristol school got its sex education priorities on backwards?

g_logo_smA Bristol secondary school recently sent a letter to parents of female students regarding school uniform. The letter explains that in the last few months “an increasing number of parents” have been purchasing “tight fitting leggings/trousers or jeans” for their daughters. It then asks for the support of parents in purchasing “what the school considers to be appropriate trousers” and included an illustration (see below), indicating which trouser profiles were right and which wrong . Evidently, at least two out of five trouser profiles are now deemed to be the wrong trousers.

Image

The school in question has a uniform for both boys and girls (black trousers and white sweatshirt tops), and it is no surprise that teenage pupils are continually trying to subvert the uniform rules and express their individuality with a bit of trendy difference. I remember aged fourteen tying my school tie into the thinnest or fattest of knots depending on what was cool and getting the odd reprimand for not adhering to expected standards of smartness. Whatever you ask to teenagers to wear, they will do their best to subvert it; when you are young, full of creative energy and want to either fit in or assert your independence, that is what you do.

But perhaps there is more to the letter than concerns about girls pushing the boundaries on school uniforms. The giveaway may be that the letter gives no reason why “tight fitting” clothes for teenage girls might be inappropriate. I cannot think that the school would be so coy if the reason was Health & Safety. So it is likely to be the “s” word – and not just “sex”, but more specifically the growing panic among adults about the so-called “sexualisation” of teenage girls. But you have to wonder how such letters and their injunctions help teenage girls or their parents when they don’t explain a school’s concerns about girls dressing in ways considered inappropriately sexual. Surely the education of teenagers should be about inculcating good ethics and enabling right choices. But instead we have a letter to parents that relies on inference. This hardly seems to be in line with the Government’s aim to “create an honest and open culture around sex and relationships” as recently outlined by the Department of Health. Yet given that the latest changes to the UK school science curriculum are to omit any reference to genitalia, puberty or sexual health, perhaps we should not be surprised. Rather than offer parents and their children the chance to question a school uniform decision that touches on adult anxieties about teenage sexuality, this school fails to offer an explanation that might open a debate. Perhaps the same thought process is behind current Government thinking about the place of sex and relationship education in the curriculum.

But a debate about so-called sexualisation is pressing. Not because it is a national problem, but because it isn’t. As Danielle Egan points out in her new book, Becoming Sexual: A Critical Appraisal of the Sexualisation of Girls, we are witnessing another spin of the age-old whirligig of adult anxiety about the sexual corruption of children, particularly teenage girls. This time round girls are at risk from culture (sexualized media and loose sexual morals), people (paedophiles and celebrities) and products (thongs, magazines and, in Bristol, tight fitting leggings and trousers). Allow a young woman to wear inappropriate leg wear to school, and the next stop is promiscuity and pole dancing. Thanks to the school’s fashion vigilance, Bristol’s young women may now have a better chance of avoiding these risks.

Yet all the evidence indicates that young people of both sexes are in less danger of being corrupted by their trousers, or any other part of their clothing, than ever before. Teenage pregnancies are down and falling1, girls aged between 16-19 are the most likely group to use a condom during first sex2, and of the approximately 40% of 16 year old girls engaging in some sort of sexual activity, 60% were doing it with someone with whom they are in a relationship3. Frankly, their sexual behaviour looks a lot more responsible than that of mature men and women in their 40s and 50s, who now have rapidly increasing rates of sexually transmitted infections. The relative maturity of teenage girls was demonstrated in an interview this week on Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour. Two young women, aged 15 and 16, talked eloquently about their online promotion of feminism and equality though TwitterYouthFeministArmy (www.facebook.com/TwitterYouthFeministArmy). Rather than innocents at risk of corrupting sexualisation, these two young women were ready to engage critically with the complex influences that affect their sexual maturation and make personal and political choices about where they stand. As Danielle Egan’s book makes clear, when you start talking to young people about the sexual culture they live in, you get a different picture from what is often imagined by adults.

So if schools want to help young people make mature decisions about the complex issues of fashion, sex and self-expression, their resources might be better spent organising a school debate about the issue. If you are going to set a rule about school uniform based on adult concerns about sexualisation, you might as well ask the kids if they think those fears are justified. That at least might have some educational impact. But sending out letters that impose school uniform rules based on adult anxieties not borne out by evidence is only going to get one teenage response – Whatever! In this instance, it would be justified.

  1. FPA (2010)
  2. Mercer, C H et al. (2008). “Who has sex with whom? Characteristics of heterosexual partnerships in a national probability survey and implications for STI risk”, International Journal of Epidemiology 38.1, 1-9.
  3. Hatherall, B et al. (2005). The Choreography of Condom Use, University of Southampton, Centre for Sexual Health Research.
Posted in Sex Education | Tagged , | 24 Comments